GEORGE WEST – The Live Oak County Sheriff’s Office, working in cooperation with several other agencies recently arrested several people in connection with federal felony charges as part of Operation Coastal Bender.

The primary arrests in the case were made in late August, but some of the charges dated back to 2015, according to Live Oak County Sheriff Larry Busby and Narcotics Investigator Lance Rathke.

A total of 16 arrests were made, including several in Live Oak County. One suspect, Michael McDaniel, remains a fugitive and is charged with possession of illegal drugs with intent to distribute.

Those arrested include:

• Martin Stewart and Melanie Sherman of Swinney Switch, charged with conspiracy possession with intent to deliver. These charges date back to 2017.

• Victor Carbajal Jr. of Three Rivers, charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

• Raymond Lopez of Three Rivers, charged with possession with intent to distribute. His case was originally worked by the Three Rivers Police Department in 2015, with assistance from the Live Oak County Sheriff’s Office. A federal warrant was served in connection with the charges in 2018.

• Michael Alegria Jr. of Alice, who was arrested Sept. 2 in Lagarto on charges of possession with intent to distribute. The charges date back to a 2017 Live Oak County Sheriff’s Office case.

• Samuel Pena Jr. of Swinney Switch, charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute.

A total of 33 were arrested, with 17 of these on federal charges. Seven of those federal charges are in Live Oak County, Rathke said.

“Law enforcement has been serving warrants and building cases through undercover work for quite some time,” Busby said. “It didn’t just happen overnight. There was a lot of work and cooperation between agencies that went into this.

Others participating in the operation included: Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the sheriff’s offices of San Patricio, Nueces and Bee counties, the Jim Wells County Constable’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, police departments in George West, Three Rivers, Alice and Beeville, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine unit.

Assistant U.S. attorneys from the Corpus Christi Division are prosecuting the cases.

“Through the week of the roundup, 33 were arrested and all of the arrests were the result of active warrants,” Rathke said.

“Operation Coastal Bender primarily focused on arresting meth users or traffickers with outstanding warrants or open cases.

At least 40 law enforcement officers worked on the case on a day-to-day basis leading up to the arrests.

“All of this happened at the same time,” Busby said. “While one arrest was being made in one place, another arrest was taking place somewhere else.”

He noted that the ATF was involved because anyone dealing in drugs or possesses drugs and who has a firearm faces an additional five years in prison on federal charges.

“That’s why we’ve been working with Homeland Security a lot,” Busby said.

Rathke and Busby said prosecuting those charged with this crimes on federal charges “is much better” than prosecuting them on state charges.

“It’s pretty much set punishment,” Busby said. “A lot of the minimum (prison time) is five years in drug cases (at the federal level.”

Rathke said those convicted on federal drug charges usually serve about 85 percent of their sentence.

“In a state court, someone who gets sentenced to five years can sometimes be out (of prison) in one year,” Busby said.

Those convicted on federal charges also face extensive rehabilitation after they are released from prison.

“Their prison sentence is followed by three to five years of supervised rehab,” Rathke said.

Depending on the level of the charges, those convicted at the federal level face either five to 40 years in prison or 10 years to life in prison.

“We have been working extensively with (Homeland Security) because this is a huge problem,” Rathke said. “Unfortunately, there is meth everywhere. It’s such an epidemic. I like to think we’ve made a dent in the problem locally with these arrests. We are thankful the U.S. Attorney’s Office  is willing to prosecute these cases.”

Another difference between state and federal charges, Busby and Rathke said, is that at the federal level, the drug amounts are cumulative and not limited to one particular arrest incident.

“Because of that, a lot of the cases here reached the 50 gram threshold (which can lead to life in prison for those convicted),” Rathke said.

Anyone with information on Alegria’s location should Homeland Security Investigations at 1-866-347-2423.

More than 70 federal and state warrants were served during the operation relating to trafficking methamphetamine and gun charges. The aim was to identify drug traffickers and violent offenders, stop gun violence and protect the community,” according to a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of Texas.

According to the press release, “authorities also served three warrants resulting in seizure of more than three ounces of methamphetamine and several grams of cocaine, marijuana and Xanax, as well as three firearms, ammunition and other items related to the sale and distribution of narcotics.”

The operation was part of ongoing efforts to help protect people from dangerous crimes, said HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Brad Scott.

“HSI is committed to working with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to rid our neighborhoods of the dangerous narcotics and illegal possession of firearms that harm the citizens of our community,” Scott said.

Jeff Osborne is the editor of The Progress. He can be reached at 361-786-3022 or theprogress@mysoutex.com.